While I applaud the recent California decision to end teacher tenure in that state, it’s important to note that teachers far too often are victims of bureaucracy. Teachers are on the front line in dealing with students who are lazy or sociopathic. But they also get flooded with red tape from principals, school boards, state governments, and increasingly, national agencies who demand to tell teachers what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach.
So any startup that says they are trying to set teachers free is worth noting, which is why I found this article in the Financial Times about a San Francisco-based startup called AltSchool of interest. Right now, AltSchool has one primary school with twenty students in it. But they appear to be the first private-school chain to attract venture capital funding from the companies that fund Silicon Valley. According to this Wall Street Journal article, in March AltSchool got $33 million in venture capital money from such renowned firms as Andreessen Horwitz and Founders Fund, whose primary backer is Peter Thiel, the libertarian-minded PayPal billionaire.
Education has always drifted between two poles: the progressives, who think children who spend their days in free-form discovery, and traditionalists who think it best when kids sit in their seats and learn facts. AltSchool seems to be on the progressive side; a video on their website shows children having a lot of fun and adventure.
But the days aren’t as unstructured as the video makes them seem. The students may doodle or make mistakes on their iPads—but all the mistakes are recorded and the teachers will try to nudge students back on the correct path. According to Mishkin, the school is “developing wearables and camera monitoring technology that can—with students’ and parents’ consent—track and record how students move around the classroom and what exactly they are learning.”
Because the people from AltSchool come from the tech community (founder Max Ventilla used to develop social media for Google) they seem to think that computers will help solve education problems previously considered insoluble. But they might want to talk to Stanford emeritus professor Larry Cuban, who has often been eloquent about how computers have proven to be very limited drivers of educational change. (Cuban’s blog is here.)
AltSchool charges $19,100 a year, but the school is trying to become a B Corporation. There are a lot of things about B Corporations that I don’t understand. For example, how can ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s can be a B Corporation when it is a division of giant international food conglomerate Unilever? I also realize that rents in San Francisco are outrageously high. But if a school that charges nearly $20,000 a year is a “low-profit” school, I’m not sure I’d want to know what a school that makes normal profits would charge.
I also wonder what freedom they have with their curriculum, what with No Child Left Behind and Common Core requirements. Aren’t there standardized tests all California primary school students have to take? If there are, how can you have a free-form curriculum without teaching to the test?
It’s far too early to judge whether AltSchool is a success. Right now, they have run one school for one year. But like other markets, education advances when entrepreneurs try new ideas, some of which will work and some of which won’t. I hope AltSchool makes it—and if it doesn’t that valuable lessons can be learned from its failure.